My heart always raced just a little in those final moments of waiting, waiting to hear the quiet hiss of the airlock pressurizing. That faint sigh of the ship’s safety returning to me once more, followed almost immediately by the barely audible click as the green ready light illuminated and the inner airlock door lock disengaged. But this time it was different. Different in the worst way possible. As the hiss started I felt my body begin to relax just a little, but almost instantly the tension returned as I realized the hiss was continuing too long.
No click, no green light, just an ongoing hiss as the ship tried to re-pressurize the airlock. I awkwardly rotated my bulky suit in the small space to see the closed door to space behind me. I could see nothing out of the ordinary, just a closed door. A closed door that apparently was not really closed. After 5 seconds, which felt like 5 hours, the hiss stopped and the amber warning light glowed silently. Pressurization failure. I now had three hours of air in my suit tank. Three hours to find and fix the problem. I now had 3 hours to live.
I had always known that leaving the safety of the ship without having anyone else inside was a particularly risky proposition. I had complained about it to central command the first time they ordered me out, but they had quickly decided it was a necessary mission and deemed it an acceptable risk. Out I went. Each time after that the threshold of necessity went down a step until the outings had become almost routine. I had been forced to do it so many times now, all without incident; I guess the reality of the risk had faded in my mind. Now it was back and as real as ever. This was not what I had signed on for.
Okay, time to calm down. An adrenaline-fueled racing heart will only serve to empty my air tank that much faster. Assess the situation, evaluate my options, and take stock of all available resources. First question, am I stuck outside the ship, or in this little airlock chamber? I raised my right arm in the stiff space suit, which made every movement like that of an old man, and pressed firmly on the round door release button next to the outside door. Instantly the door slid aside to reveal the asteroid’s grey surface and the black sky of space. Well, that is at least good news I guess; the door still operates. I moved through the open doorway to the outside where I would at least be able to move a little more freely. Then, bending slightly, ever so stiffly and slowly with the spacesuit arthritis that gripped my body, I looked over the black rubber seal running around the perimeter of the opening. Nothing out of the ordinary was visible.
I was not sure what I was looking for really since there are not a lot of visible contaminants in the vacuum of open space, but I still had to look, just like people have to pop the hood on a car and stare at the engine that won’t start, imagining they might see something obvious and easily repairable. It usually just led to such clever witticisms as, “yep, it’s an engine!” My next urge was to reach out with my bulky glove and feel along the surface, but I refrained from doing so as there were two problems with this idea. The first and most obvious being that I would not be able to actually “feel” a thing through the thirteen layers of nylon, spandex, neoprene, Mylar, Kevlar and Nomex that encased my hand to protect it from the extremes of open space. The second reason was a matter of training. Living in space, you either live by the book, or you die, and in this case the book said, “do not touch the black rubber seal in the outer airlock door to avoid damage to the seal or the introduction of contaminants”. Still somewhat in shock over my situation, and unsure of what else to do, I did the only obvious thing there was to do and pressed the door operation button on the outside surface of the ship. The door again slid shut. Everything looked deceptively normal.
Slow breath; keep calm, exercise a little common sense. What is the first thing you do when something mechanical doesn’t operate correctly the first time? Why you try it again of course. Simple enough, in this case, this 2 billion dollar deep space vehicle was no different than a 69 Chevy (and right now I sure wished I was back in the barn working on my old Chevy instead of here). If it doesn’t start the first time, turn the key once more. Pretending nothing was wrong, and showing no signs of panic, which could somehow alert the ship, to misbehave (it is hard not to project personality traits onto a spaceship when it is your only companion for two years in deep space), I reached out and pressed the button once more and watched as the door slid open. I stepped carefully into the airlock, took one slow breath, and pressed the airlock cycle button. I could just make out the door sliding shut behind me as the quality of light in the chamber changed, then the slight hiss, and then the click . . . and then the click! oh come on seal! No click. No seal, just the amber warning light again. Okay, this could be serious. I glanced down at the suit status display panel just below the visor on my helmet. Suit status: green. Temperature management operational. Oxygen supply: 2 hours 52 minutes remaining.
“A nice safe outpost assignment”, they had said. “Routine research activities”, they told me. “Very low danger rating”, they assured me, “nothing like those frontier exploration missions”. What an opportunity, just what I had been looking for. It all sounded so good: a comfortable ship, routine data collection and analysis duties, and lots of down time. I should have known they were leaving something out, but I had been under pressure to find a posting or lose my ranking. It wasn’t until after I accepted that they filled in the little detail that I would be all alone on this mission. Alone for two years on a rock deep in space. While it didn’t sound very appealing, the honest truth was that I really didn’t have much of a social life anyway, and no real family ties to speak of.
Again I turned and opened the door to the outside and stepped out of the ship. I knew full well that this was the one and only entrance to the ship from the outside, so no use looking for another, but the oxygen supply question required some further thought. I ran through all the sources of oxygen, or even compressed air outside the ship. The rover used compressed air for its pneumatic actuator, it was not filtered and oxygen enriched for breathing, but it could potentially be used. I ran over the access panels available on the ship’s hull; fuel intake, waste disposal, resource transfer. Of course the resource transfer ports had clean water and oxygen available for sharing with a surface habitation module (which I did not have). But could I use them? The port sizes and connectors were different than anything on my suit. Even as I began to brainstorm ideas to jerry-rig a connection to the oxygen ports, I knew that this was really the wrong track to be on. More air would only postpone the inevitable if I were still outside the ship. My real goal should be getting back inside the ship to safety. That had to be my priority. If for some reason I came up with a way to get inside that would take more than 3 hours to accomplish, then I could think about extending my air supply.
In my head I could hear my father’s calm voice, repeating those famous words of NASA’s Gene Kranz that he liked so much, “Let’s work the problem people…” I missed him right now, and was sorry that he never got to see me graduate and get my first posting.
So let’s break this down. Why can’t I get inside? The airlock won’t seal, and what is the function of the airlock? It is the ship’s way of protecting itself. A way to keep air inside, and the vacuum of space outside. Even if I could somehow force open the inner door of the airlock, that would cause the ship to de-pressurize, which would make inside only slightly better than outside. But it could be re-pressurized couldn’t it? Or the de-pressurization could be contained. Now I was on to something. I stood motionless on the surface of the small, grey, atmosphere-less asteroid, next to a ship I was locked out of, hurtling through space, forming a plan to save my life.
The key to the plan involved a data port in the access panel next to the resource transfer ports. It was made to allow the ship’s computer to help control the operation of the surface habitation module. I would need a way to tie in my suit computer to the data port and network with the ship computer. I would then attempt to trick the ship’s system into believing there was a hull integrity breach in the lower levels, which would trigger all the inner pressure doors to seal. I would then attempt (and this would be the most difficult part) to convince the computer to open the inner airlock door even though the airlock was not sealed. This would de-pressurize the whole suit locker room inside the airlock. Then it would simply be a matter of entering the locker, resealing the door to the outside, then re-establishing pressure inside the locker from the rest of the ship before removing my suit. It all sounded reasonable enough in theory, but there were still several key problems to overcome, and another quick glance informed me I now had 2 hours and 38 minutes to make it all happen.
When I took the deep space posting, the only personal message I had to send was to my brother. My parents had passed away several years ago while I was still in school. He was struggling to save the family business alone, and thought I was selfish and foolish to join the Corps. He wanted me to stay and help him run the business. He did not have anything else to say to me once I had told him I would not be staying. He had not even responded to my last S-Comm informing him that I would be leaving earth for two years. I just hoped he didn’t sell my old car.
No more time to waste standing around, I made my way to the data port using the low gravity bunny hop developed by the Apollo astronauts so long ago. I removed the multi-purpose key tool from the Velcro on the back of my left forearm, inserted it into the small hole next to the access panel and carefully turned it 90 degrees with my bulky gloved finger. The hatch cover slid aside. Inside laid a control pad for the transfer ports, a small display to show status and diagnostic information, and a rectangular 168-pin data port. Unfortunately my suit did not come equipped with a data transfer cable. The handheld data logger Velcro-ed to my right thigh did have one, but did not have much of a real control interface other than for its own logging functions and raw data transfer. It did however also have a wireless network connection to my suit computer to allow me control and access data from my visor display.
I thought this over for a few minutes, then, using the chord typing keys in my glove finger tips, created a data file which contained auto execute headers and ship control commands in my suit computer. Next I changed the name and file type of the file to match a standard data logger data collection file. Then pausing for a minute to work out commands in my head, repeated the process with a second file. I couldn’t stop myself from glancing down at the suit status display – 2 hours 24 minutes – should be plenty of time, I hoped. I transferred my two newly created files to the data logger memory, then carefully pulled out the stiff coiled cord from the back of the logger and tried to insert the plug into the jack on the side of the ship. This cable was typically used inside the ship to offload data after a surface excursion and was not designed to be handled by the awkward, large, numb fingers of the spacesuit glove. Eventually I got the plug to seat into the jack and was rewarded with a data transfer status light on the logger display. I stopped before thumbing the data transfer button.
This is how it was supposed to work: When I transferred the data files to the ship computer it would automatically strip the data logger file headers from the data and dump the contents into standard data files of its own. Normally this is where it would stop. But these files were very unusual, by my design, and contained, instead of raw sensor data, executable ship computer commands. Of course this was not usually done, so I was not entirely sure that it would work at all. If it did go according to my plan, a sequence of events should begin in the ship’s systems
First, the ship supervisory watchdog computer should go into self-diagnostic mode and stop monitoring the main computer. Next the environmental system’s self checking diagnostic system will go offline, followed by the computer receiving a fake loss of pressure signal from the lower level environmental systems. Since the diagnostic system is already offline, the computer should interpret this as a legitimate environmental integrity crisis and seal the pressure doors between the levels, as well as sounding several alarms and signal beacons to warn any inhabitants of the problem. Next, and this is where things get complicated, the computer should “forget” about the pressure loss it was containing, and react to a nonexistent toxic contamination alarm signal from the lower level sensors. The automated standard course of action in this situation will be to check for inhabitants in the lower level, which there are none, then open the airlock doors to vent the contamination to space, and allow me to quickly slip in, before resealing and re-pressurizing the area.
Overall it was a very risky plan for several reasons, the most basic of which was what a generally bad idea it was to mess with your ship’s safety systems. Their job is to keep you alive in a variety of dangerous situations that can arise in deep space. They were not easy to fool, and if I was successful there was a very real risk of losing some important functionality until I could affect software repairs. At the moment I evaluated the risk of being trapped outside of the ship without oxygen to be greater than that of being inside the ship with oxygen and a confused computer. The second problem had to do with simple timing. I had tried to put some delays in the process, but once I initiated the transfer I would have approximately 90 seconds to move around the side of the ship to the airlock and be ready to slip in when it opened.
The “family business”. Retaining Latch Subassembly Part no C714, for use in the Bostwick FT-905 Microgravity Environment Refrigeration Unit. A glorified refrigerator shelf. Leave it to my sensible father to find the most boring part of the exciting new field of space travel (Who am I to talk? A glorified research technician alone on a rock in deep space). But it was one of the thousands of precisely designed, tested and manufactured important details that went into a deep space transport ship. My father always was a “greatness is in the details” kind of guy. It was a focused niche market, and he had managed to build a small empire based on his particularly clever and cost effective solution to securely holding, yet easily releasing, sample containers in the refrigeration unit of a microgravity test lab. After recouping the high design costs for the first year, profits had been high the second year of production. That lowly refrigerator shelf paid for a nice new house and for my tuition at the academy.
I turned and positioned myself so I was ready to move, then thumbed the data transfer button on the data logger. The moment I saw the transfer light begin to flash with the flowing data, my heart began to race. I let go of the logger, leaving it to free float on the end of its cable, not unlike Ed White floating on the end of his umbilical cord life line from the Gemini 4 capsule on the first US space walk way back in 1965. As that fleeting image raced through my mind I had already begun the bunny hop around the ship. I fought the urge to rush, as that would just increase the risk of stumbling and tumbling in slow motion over the surface while the airlock opened and closed without me. I reached the airlock door in 78 seconds . . . and waited.
I could hear my heart pounding in my suit. 90 seconds, still nothing – had I made a mistake in the command files? Overlooked a backup safety system, which would stop any of it from working? I stood waiting, an eternity passed, 110 seconds since starting the transfer – suddenly the ship alert indicator lit up bright red in the lower left corner of my visor display – something was happening. Another 10 seconds crept by agonizingly slowly before the outer airlock door slid open to reveal the inner door also open, bathed in the flashing red of the emergency beacon light inside. For a second I felt the slight pressure wave against my suit of the air rushing out of the ship, then I grabbed the door frame with both hands and pulled myself though as fast as I could. A little too fast, I immediately realized (adrenaline can be a dangerous thing in low gravity), as I found myself floating quickly across the room and bouncing off the far wall. As I worked to steady myself I caught a glimpse of the airlock sliding shut out of the side of my visor. I must say that at that point it was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. I regained my balance against a console and worked to slow by breathing and heart rate. It had actually worked . . . or had it?
Well most of it had, as I was now inside the ship, which was clearly a better place to be, but something was still wrong. The inner pressure doors to the suit locker room remained sealed, and the de-pressurization lights continued to flash. For some reason, the ship was not re-pressurizing and unsealing the locker area. At this point the still rational part of my adrenaline-fueled psyche recognized that my perception of the passage of time was quite probably not at its most accurate. I breathed slow, controlled breaths and waited for the ship to re-pressurize the cabin. After what seemed like another hour, but in reality was more like another 30 seconds, the ship took the unexpected and rather undesirable action of re-opening the inner, then outer, airlock doors to space. This was not good.
Trouble hit the family business when we were caught in the New Congress cost-cutting sweep of the space program. They spent millions of dollars re-analyzing every one of those important details looking to save a few pennies, and our family business was one of the victims. Some clever bureaucrat in Washington decided that the locking shelf units from an ocean going research vessel would work just as well for a fraction of the cost, and just like that the orders had stopped. It didn’t matter that the ship shelves proved to be far less functional in practice; the damage was done. The only thing which saved the business was the edict that all basic parts should have multiple sources so we were able to pick up contracts second-sourcing a number of different knobs, latches and shelves for the lab module, but margins were thin and profits were low.
Standing in the suit locker, I ran over the command sequences I had entered, tracing the sequence of events. Seconds later the airlock doors slid shut once again, but still the lights continued to flash, and the cabin remained de-pressurized. My mind raced, eyes scanning the room status panels for clues. As my vision locked on to the orange flashing “atmosphere contamination” warning light my mistake suddenly became blindingly obvious.
Standing outside, coding complex computer command sequences in my gloves fingertips, I had neglected to enter a command to clear the contamination condition. The ship was still trying to clear the room of a fantasy poison, which did not exist. I had to get rid of the false sensor reading, or restart the ship’s diagnostic systems, before the ship would try to re-pressurize the cabin. In a moment of anxiety, a paranoid thought occurred to me, what if there really was a contamination that I didn’t know about? Ignoring that idea the best I could, I started to piece together possible computer commands to do the job, as again the airlock doors slid open, and after the appropriate pause, slid shut again. Okay, this should not be any harder than my original deception of the systems, and being inside the ship this time, it could be somewhat more straightforward. I assessed my surroundings and resources at hand. This small room was only used for suiting up before leaving the ship and therefore did not contain a full function computer terminal, but it did have a ship status panel, communication panel, and simplified control panel, which offered control of the airlock and suit charging systems. Of course! There were stations for recharging the suit’s oxygen tanks and batteries.
I could hook up my suit and be safe indefinitely, though that would be little consolation if the air lock did not stop cycling. I glanced down at my suit status monitor – 2 hours 16 minutes remaining resources. Amazing, it had only been 8 minutes since I had plugged in my data logger outside the ship. My mind racing with adrenaline, it felt more like 8 hours. Even though there was no pressing need, I decided to satisfy my basic insecurities and hook up my suit to recharge. Secure in the warm embracing arms of the ship’s inexhaustible oxygen and electrical supplies I took a deep breath and relaxed muscles I hadn’t realized were clenched. Slowly, my mind began to clear of the fog of crisis, as once again the airlock doors slid open, paused momentarily, and re-closed.
What the family business needed now to get back on its feet again was some real innovation. I did not mind admitting my brother was a competent business manager, and had done a good job at keeping the business afloat, even if just barely, when the contracts were suddenly cut off, but he was never really a technical innovator like my father had been. I had occasionally tried to discuss some new ideas with him, but as long as I was still leaving for the Corps, he just wasn’t interested in listening. “If you want to help so much, then stay and help! If you’re still set on heading out into space like some damn fool kid looking for adventure, then just go! Don’t try to tell me how to run the business, my business, then head out the door and leave me to face the consequences!” He was right, I guess. I was in no position to tell him what to do as long as I was leaving, but I just couldn’t bring myself to settle down into my father’s company. Maybe I was being a foolish kid, but I just wanted to do something more, something bigger, than sit at a CAD station next to my father, or in my father’s seat after he was gone. Today that seat was starting to look a little more appealing.
The suit locker I was in did not have a lot of controls. After a crewmember was suited up to leave the ship there was not a lot that had to be done other than operate the airlock cycle, or communicate with other crewmembers. However, one could also use the comm panel to communicate with the ship itself. Unlike the standard science fiction movie fare, crew did not actually carry on a voice conversation with a sophisticated ship computer artificial intelligence personality. Early in the deep space program it became obvious that such voice control was not particularly practical or useful. Instead a much simpler touch screen interface was used. It could display small, complex controls for un-gloved hands, or enter a basic control mode with big touch areas to accommodate fingers in the bulky suit gloves.
Having partially recharged my suit systems, and more importantly calmed by mind and body, I unplugged from the suit station and moved over to the communication panel screen. One quick touch to the large “glove mode” button on the edge of the screen and the small text menus were instantly replaced with big touch areas. First try – “Seal Airlock”, response: “System override – atmosphere contamination emergency, airlock not sealed”. Okay, “Status” . . . suddenly, before the standard status screen could display a banner alert message scrolled across the screen, “Crew detected in suit locker – aborting decontamination procedure! All crew must equip suits immediately!” Of course, why hadn’t I thought of that? No fancy programs were needed this time; as soon as I touched the screen the ship systems registered my presence in the room. “Pressurizing” flashed on the screen, and moments later the spinning red pressure loss warning lights stopped and the green “normal pressure” light lit – but the yellow contamination light remained lit. A green status also lit in the bottom of my visor screen indicating a safe external atmospheric pressure.
My head was spinning, trying to unravel the twisted mess I had created of the ship’s systems. The suit locker was pressurized, the external airlock was sealed, both extremely good things to have, but the ship still “thought” that there was an environmental contamination hazard and would not unseal the inner pressure door to the rest of the ship. I reached up and removed my helmet and pondered my next move while placing it gently in its rack. With a well-practiced firm grasp, twist, unlock motion my gloves came off next. Finally I backed into the suit rack, unlocked the suit, and slipped out backwards. Being free of the bulk of the suit felt good and seemed to remove another layer of burden from my situation and made everything feel a bit better.
I stepped up to the comm panel again, selected the “free hand” mode and the large simple buttons were replaced with a much more detailed menu of text and buttons. Okay, this shouldn’t be hard: Status – atmosphere contamination – warning all crew equip suits immediately. Details – Unknown atmospheric contamination. Sensor Status – Sensor status unknown, diagnostic system not responding. Reset Sensor Diagnostic System . . . come on you can do it . . . Diagnostic System Reset – Sensor Fault Detected – Resetting Sensor Status – Unknown Environmental Hazard Cleared . And with that yellow warning light finally winked out and, free of my suit, I could hear the soft click of the inner door unlocking. Instantly, with some kind of unexplained rushed feeling, like if I waited too long the ship may change its mind, I moved to the door and slapped the open button. With only the slightest whisper the door slid open and I moved through to the main area of the ship. The door closed behind me and I sighed a deep breath of relief.
I had made it. Survived another day alone in deep space. As I sat at the main computer console resetting the ship’s diagnostic systems, I ran over the events in my mind and wondered just why the hell I had chosen to be here, all alone, hundreds of thousands of miles from any other human. What exactly was I looking for, or maybe running from? I could not come up with a good answer just then, but I did learn that the main surface airlock was indeed exhibiting a small leak in the outer pressure door. I would not be leaving the ship again anytime soon. That’s okay; I can use the extra free time to finish up that resignation letter to central command that I have been putting off, and start working on my ideas for a new solo mission ship safety system.